Let me start by confessing I’ve somehow managed to get through life without ever reading A Tale of Two Cities. This became a matter of anxiety recently when I realized that I’d soon be reviewing a comic theatrical adaptation of that novel, and that I probably had the obligation of poring over it first on my e-reader. With further thought, though, I decided not to. After all, I reasoned, the typical American Stage theatergoer probably hadn’t read the novel either — or read it decades ago, in high school — and I would be distancing myself from my fellow spectators if I came to the show in a state of special preparedness. I also recalled going to a dozen dramatic adaptations of novels I hadn’t read — everything from Travels With My Aunt to My Name is Asher Lev — and finding my ignorance of the original fiction not the least bit problematic. If the adaptor did his or her job, the narrative would come alive for me on stage, right? If it worked for Of Mice and Men and How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, it would work as well for Two Cities, wouldn’t it?
And here’s why. First: Dickens’s Tale is a complicated one, taking place in England and France and featuring so many plot twists and characters, it simply doesn’t lend itself to the one-actor-plays-everyone approach of Everett Quinton’s would-be tour de force. Yes, solo actor Mark Chambers is a talented impersonator, but again and again I found myself confused by the onstage action or utterly lost and searching for a familiar landmark. This problem is exacerbated by stage business: Chambers plays Jerry, a drag queen recounting the Tale while preparing for a show, and in the process he removes his street clothes, takes a bath, very slowly dons his drag, and at one point puts a lampshade on his head and potted plants around his waist. When one actor plays 20 characters, what you need are visual clues that clearly, vividly distinguish one from another. In this particular production, the clues are more often misleading.
Next, there’s the baby.
All right, I suppose this is supposed to be wonderfully absurd, but I can’t begin to imagine why author Quinton has his sole character producing Dickens for a baby. I don’t mean that I miss the proximate cause: I fully understand that, according to this play, an abandoned baby has been placed on Jerry’s doorstep, he tries to quell the infant’s crying, and only A Tale of Two Cities has the desired palliative effect. That much makes a sort of sense. But on a deeper level, a thematic level, why is there a baby? If the point is to be silly, it’s not silly enough — except during those few moments when the child waves a French tricolor or menaces with a butcher’s cleaver. If it’s supposed to be satire, what’s being satirized? Our ridiculous habits of reading Proust and Joyce to little Bingo? Our well-known insistence on exposing 6-week-old Dorothy to Merchant/Ivory films? If the baby is a gag, it’s a good one for a few minutes and then it gets tired.
Which brings me back to Jerry dressing for his drag show — a bizarre conceit with no relation to a) A Tale of Two Cities or b) the baby. Well then, perhaps the whole play is a kind of living Magritte painting, in which the juxtaposition of unlike elements is supposed to wake us out of our dogmatic slumber and into a heightened consciousness of… what? I’ve seen a version of Gogol’s The Inspector General in which a 7-foot-tall pineapple made its way across the stage while the action in 19th-century Russia proceeded in front of it; just the other night I saw the execrable film The Lobster, in which a camel walked by in an otherwise entirely European setting. These surreal moments worked because of their unpredictability and brevity; but why for two whole acts the little squealer, the drag preparation, A Tale of Two Cities? I left The Lobster remembering that camel as a high point; I left Two Cities hoping to forget this play as soon as possible.
Anyway: Janis Stevens’s direction is fine, Jerid Fox’s messy Manhattan studio apartment is terrific, and Trish Kelley’s ingenious costumes provide more suspense than anything else in the show.
But why oh why did I have to lose two good hours watching this meaningless stunt?